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Syracuse 2020 spring football preview: Wide receivers & tight ends

Once again, SU looks to replace last year’s top target.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange football team has added 23 new players this offseason — courtesy of recruiting and the transfer portal. And with said additions, we’ve turned the page to the 2020 season... despite the fact that kickoff isn’t for quite a few months still.

Spring practice will start soon, though no word on that just yet (hopefully soon?). But ahead of that, we’re previewing each position group on the roster and specifically, on campus right now. Last week, we dove into the running back position.

Today’s topic:

How does Syracuse fix last year’s pass-catching concerns?

Who’s gone?

Most importantly, Trishton Jackson. In one full season suiting up for Syracuse, Jackson had 66 catches for 1,023 yards and 11 scores — and then declared for the NFL Draft. Along with Jackson, Sean Riley (36 receptions for 275 yards and one TD) graduated. The two of them combined for 41% of the team’s catches and 45% of receiving yards.

Who’s on campus?

Everyone else, actually, which sets us up reasonably well — to me, anyway. Taj Harris (37 catches for 559 yards and two TDs) ended the year strong and could be a top target for 2020. Tight end Aaron Hackett had a big year with 23 grabs for 205 yards and six scores, while Luke Benson looked impressive with eight catches for 176 yards and three touchdowns.

Other experienced pass-catching options include Nykeim Johnson, Cameron Jordan, Sharod Johnson and Courtney Jackson. I’d count Jawhar Jordan in this group too, since he seems likely to be utilized in the slot along with his role in the backfield. Scholarship receivers like Russell Thompson-Bishop, Kevin Mital, Anthony Queeley, Cooper Lutz and Ed Hendrix also return, and 2020 signees Ja’Vontae Williams and Maximilian Mang are both already on campus.

SU also has a significant group of walk-on receivers like Kevin Johnson Jr., Ethan Fischler, James Cherry, Sam Warren and Nate Wellington — plus tight end Jesse Conners — nearly all of whom were on the squad last year.

Who’s arriving this summer?

Even more reinforcements in the form of Damien Alford, Trebor Pena, Steven Mahar and Justin Barron (who may wind up on the offensive side of the ball — TBD).

Alford and Mahar are huge targets, each at 6-foot-5, while Pena could be a shifty slot receiver. Based on who’s on the roster, Alford seems most likely to be able to break onto the depth chart in year one, but anyone not here during spring ball is potentially a little behind the eight-ball there.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

How do inside receivers get involved in this attack again?

Last year’s passing game had a lot of problems, and it wasn’t all due to offensive line play. After inside receivers Riley and Nykeim Johnson caught 105 passes for 1,321 yards and seven touchdowns in 2019, they managed just 55 grabs for 374 yards and one score. Whether it was due to pressure, route-running or gameplan design, Tommy DeVito didn’t have a screen game available to him to provide the easy safety valves we’ve seen from Dino Babers’s offense in years’ past.

Involvement this year means more designed screens, including bubble screens that have worked really well in the past. Getting the ball into the hands of guys like Nykiem Johnson and Jawhar Jordan (plus maybe Lutz this time around?) in small spaces takes advantage of their speed and provides an extra wrinkle that creates mismatches. Whether DeVito’s under fire or not, this is how efficiency goes up and predictability of this attack goes down.

Will we continue to see tight ends increase their presence as pass-catchers?

Last season was an interesting change for a Babers offense, involving tight ends in the pass game more than he has at any other point at either Syracuse or Bowling Green. Hackett and Benson caught 31 receptions for 381 yards and nine TDs, utilizing their unique skillsets as big targets who possess some wide receiver speed. Also, given how often tight ends were utilized to block (as they typically are in this scheme), defenses weren’t necessarily prepping to see them as pass-catchers — despite the continued success for them there.

Tight ends got more involved for USF in Sterlin Gilbert’s second season at USF, when Mitchell Wilcox caught 43 balls. While we may not be expecting that level of production, necessarily, the spring is likely going to be spent figuring out how to use the two returning big targets as creatively as possible. Good things seemed to happen in the red zone when either Benson or Hackett touched the football. Expect Gilbert to have noticed as much and gear more of the short-yardage offense around them.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

How do we replace Trishton Jackson’s production?

This one’s tricky, since Jackson was such an enormous part of this passing game on his own. But each year since Babers arrived on campus, Syracuse has replaced the leading receiver, and each year, the succeeding top wideout has had at least 900 receiving yards. Steve Ishmael’s the only guy we really had a hint about producing well in advance. So it’s not necessarily farfetched to think the eventual top receiver in 2020 is going to be fine, no matter who he is.

My money’s on Harris, who had 13 receptions in the final two weeks of 2019, and we already know has some of the surest hands and best route-running abilities on the roster. Between him, a potentially resurgent Nykeim Johnson, the tight ends and the long list of young receivers chomping at the bit to jump in (hopefully Hendrix, the former four-star recruit, most notably), there’s ample opportunities to match and surpass what we saw from the wideouts last year. It all comes down to whether DeVito can spread the ball around a bit better this season, and which young guys are ready for bigger roles.

How can Syracuse use the deep ball more effectively in 2020?

Well for one, utilizing screens and tight ends more should lend an assist. By pulling defensive backs closer to the line of scrimmage, it opens up the deep ball far better. Most of you know that because it’s literally a core concept of the offense and a main feature of the Orange version of it from 2016-18. Syracuse departed from that idea last season (for various reasons), and the result was an offense that went deep too often.

In 2019, SU completed just 96 passes of 10 or more yards (98th in the country), but they were tied for 29th in completions of 40 or more yards, with 13. So yes, SU connected on deep balls last year, but not as well as expected when looking at how often they threw downfield.

Protecting DeVito and keeping him upright means better downfield throws, obviously. Expect Gilber to get creative about what those routes look like, though, after a fairly vanilla approach for SU these past couple years. DeVito has a great arm and throws a nice deep ball with time. Hopefully he’s able to put that on display a bit more this year.